The consumptive lifestyle of Western societies is putting tremendous pressure on the world
The world is going through two major challenges: climate change and post COVID-19 recovery. I feel both these challenges can be met if we live a simple, holistic, and sustainable life. If each one of us lives sustainably then the world can become sustainable. This was the message of Mahatma Gandhi.
I have tried to live such a life for the last 35 years and would like to share my experiences. My experiment is not the final word on sustainable living. It is just a pointer, and I am sure many readers may have even better answers and solutions. If each one of us share our experiences in sustainable living, then this will add to the overall knowledge for a better world.
Later this month a major Climate Change conference will take place in Glasgow, UK and such knowledge can be a welcome addition to the debate.
The consumptive lifestyle of western societies is putting tremendous pressure on the world resources besides increasing global warming and pollution. For example, an average American consumes 306 GJ/yr. of energy. If every citizen of this planet wants to have the wasteful and consumptive lifestyle of an average American, then we will need the resources of 4-5 earths to sustain us.
My sustainable living experiments
I live in a small rural town of Phaltan, in western Maharashtra, in India. It is about 800 metres above sea level and is 100 km southeast of Pune or 300 km southeast of Mumbai. Its climate is very mild. Still in some years during winters the minimum temperatures can reach 7-8 degrees C. Our house is not heated. We close the windows at night if needed and wear warm clothes and socks. It keeps us warm and comfortable.
I live in a house designed and constructed by me in 1984. It has 18” thick stone/brick walls which allow thermal lag-time, so heating and cooling due to ambient atmospheric temperature are delayed.
It is passively cooled in the summer by laying old jute gunny sacks on the roof and sprinkling water on them one or two times a day. These sacks are very cheap and cost Rs. 10/m2. The evaporating water from the sacks cool the roof from where 80% of thermal load comes into the house.
Thus when the outside temperatures are about 40-45 degrees C the average temperatures of rooms range from 25-30 degrees C. This is mostly because of thick walls and cool roofs. Besides, we also close all the windows and draw the drapes over them so that hot air and radiation from outside does not come inside the house. The trees surrounding the house also help.
In the last 2-3 years we had scanty rains in Phaltan and so there are drought-like conditions. To mitigate that and keep the house cool without the use of water we have set up green shade nets over the roof. These shade nets cost Rs. 150/m2 and together with gunny sacks provide adequate cooling for the roof. Such a simple cooling system has also been put on all buildings in our Institute. The Institute buildings are also stone structures with 18” thick walls.
This simple rooftop cooling system is a highly effective air-conditioning mechanism, with very little energy and cost involved. The gunny sacks last for about two years, after which they need to be replaced, and the water requirement is only 1.5 liters per square meter. Costing done by us has shown that this system is one-tenth the cost of a regular electric air conditioning mechanism, and when the electricity supply is irregular -especially during summer — the rooftop system provides a very cost-effective method of cooling the house.
In a couple of years or so the gunny sacks get worn out because of the salts left behind by the evaporating water. These old gunny sacks are either used as mulch in the garden or burned in our hot water boiler, which supplies water for our daily bath.
Water boiler, waste disposal
The water boiler is a grate-type multifuel boiler with about a 10 m long chimney attached to it. This chimney height gives an excellent draught and hence burns the wood and other material quite cleanly. The ash from this boiler is used as a fertilizer in our garden either by putting it directly around the plants or in a composting pit.
All our kitchen waste is composted in a pit (dimensions of 1 m X 1 m X 1 m) and within 2-3 months it provides excellent fertilizer for the garden.
Similarly at NARI we compost all the agricultural residues from our farm in four huge pits. The residues after crop harvesting are brought to the pits, chopped into small pieces by chaff cutter and then put in them. Periodic water spray and additions of cow dung helps to produce good compost in 3-4 months. Use of such farmyard manure has drastically improved soils of the NARI farm.
We never waste any food in the house. Whatever we take on the plate is eaten. The leftovers are either used the next day or fed to our dog and a few cats. There is no special food for the pets. They eat whatever we eat
Afforestation, local produce
We have a 2-acre plot on which our house is located. It mostly contains trees planted by us. Their leaf litter rots in the soil during the rainy season and provide nice mulch. The dead branches and trees provide us with the wood for heating our bath water in the boiler. In fact we always have surplus wood so that we sell it and make a tidy sum.
We purchased this barren land at a throwaway price in 1981. The quality of land was so poor that there would be huge cracks – big enough for whole sheep to disappear in them. We planted about 30 different types of trees. With time the trees have grown. The garden is presently like a tropical forest.
Last count showed that there are about 40 different types of birds which either live in our garden or take refuge during the migratory phase. The leaf litter from the trees and the compost fertilizer has improved the soil quality and it has therefore become springy and quite fertile.
Similarly when the NARI farms were purchased in the late 1970s they were mostly barren. With the use of irrigation water from the Nira Right Bank canal and organic fertilizer from the compost pits the land has become very fertile.
Most of our groceries and vegetables are grown within 10-15 km of our home. The eggs are mostly from local poultry, milk is sourced from cows across the road and vegetables and groceries from the local market. Most of these things are grown in the Phaltan area.
We use seeds of safflower or mustard grown locally for crushing in the local mill for oil. Thus the oil is fresh and without any chemicals. We also consume some fruits grown in our own garden.
Fuel-efficient vehicles, material recycling
Until four years ago I drove my 1985 Maruti 800 cc car which transported me from point A to B comfortably. After being driven 150,000 kilometers it has been sold since it could not be insured, and neither could I get spare parts for its repair. So now I drive a Maruti Alto - an efficient small car which gives me between 18-20 km/liter and is small enough to go in the smallest of lanes and by-lanes of Phaltan town.
For long distance driving to Pune or Mumbai (300 km from Phaltan), which happens occasionally now because of COVID, we hire a taxi.
We have few clothes, and they are worn until they get torn. They are then used in the house as dusters and wipers and after becoming tatters are used in the water boiler to heat the water. Mostly I wear khadi or cotton spun in cottage industries. Khadi is a very comfortable material to wear and makes excellent dusters and wipers after the shirts get torn.
Similarly, all the papers in the office are used for writing on both sides and the used ones are brought to our house to again heat our bathwater. Thus we try to recycle most of the things.
We have battery-powered inverters both in the offices and at home which supply enough juice during power cuts for lights, fans, and computers only. Therefore, no TV or refrigerators run on them. During electricity cuts we walk, talk, or read. This provides a good quality time to catch up on reading and discussions. Sometimes I think this is for the best as 24-hour electricity with TV and other electronic media running continuously causes distraction.
We do not travel very much but communicate more by phones and internet and believe that this is a much more energy-efficient way of keeping in touch. With the availability of broadband internet connection both at home and in the office, it is an excellent communication and information medium. One of the positive outcomes of COVID-19 crisis has been a tremendous increase in communication via the internet and has greatly helped in reducing the cost of travel and pollution.
We bring most of our groceries and vegetables in cotton carry bags and hence have little plastic garbage. Nevertheless, we cannot get away from plastic as most things come already packed in it and this is the biggest nuisance we have. We have no way to recycle it. Presently we take the plastic bags and bottles to the local garbage dump from where they ultimately go to the recycling center. The technology for recycling of plastics in rural areas is not available and is very much needed.
Old is gold
We are teetotalers and drink only water, which is boiled. Thus the plastic bottles and cans of soft drinks do not litter our garden. Drinking only water is not only healthier but also helps the environment by not producing plastic bottle litter.
We buy only those things which are needed and since we live simply, we do not need to buy too many things. I still use my 1985-made wristwatch which gives excellent service and also use one of our 20-year-old refrigerators.
We try to get most of our gadgets repaired rather than throwing them away when they stop working. This reduces garbage production and at the same time is easy on the pocketbook. However, India is rapidly developing into a throwaway society and hence it is becoming increasingly difficult to get the old gadgets repaired.
Low energy consumption
The main external inputs we use are electricity for lighting and gadgets, petrol for transport, and liquid petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking. Our per capita energy consumption (from last 2-3 years data) is 14.5 GJ/yr. for electricity (both in offices and home), 10.8 GJ/yr. in transport (mostly for petrol in our car and diesel for taxi) and 2.1 GJ/yr. in cooking gas.
Thus we personally consume ~ 27.4 GJ/person/year of energy. To this should be added the energy in India’s infrastructure which comes to about 10 GJ/person/year. Thus our total commercial energy consumption is ~ 37.4 GJ/person/yr. Contrast this with about 306 GJ/person/year that an average U.S. citizen uses. Thus in 1/8th the energy that is used by an average America citizen we can live quite decently in a modern industrial society.
Our low electricity consumption is because we use only fans and LED lamps and evaporative or passive roof cooling systems. Even in our offices we use evaporative roof cooling. We do have an air conditioner (AC) in our bedroom and in my office, but it is hardly used because of the passive evaporative roof cooling system. Last 8-10 years data show that we have used AC for 15-20 days a year during the hot humid weather. The low energy usage in transport is because on an average we travel between 15-17 thousand km/yr.
If air travel is added to the above energy, then the consumption increases drastically. With the energy norm of 1.4 MJ/passenger-km for air travel a trip to the US from Mumbai consumes 28.3 GJ/person of energy while each domestic air travel consumes – 3 GJ/person. Thus last year we made four domestic and one foreign trip and hence the total energy used was 86 GJ/person. This is still less than 1/3rd the energy consumed by a US citizen. Though our air travel is quite limited, it is still the biggest user of energy in our case.
Our average water consumption is 180 liters per person/day for household purposes. This is almost one-fourth that used by a U.S. citizen.
Recently we have done an experiment of rainwater harvesting in NARI by setting up a small hut-like structure and collecting the rainwater from its roof in a 3000 liters plastic tank. Even in Phaltan with 500 mm rainfall/year we were able to show that the area of a small hut roof is sufficient to collect all the water needed for yearly drinking requirements for a family of 4-5. We now feel that our solar water purifier in combination with roof top rain harvesting system can be an economically viable answer for drinking water requirements for families in rural areas.
With these examples, I feel a satisfying and decent lifestyle can be maintained with much less energy and water usage as compared to that in Western societies and do hope it may inspire others to do their own energy calculations for sustainable living.
Interestingly if every person has an energy consumption pattern like ours then one earth is sufficient to provide all the energy needs of mankind.
A nice video on this theme is here.
(The writer is Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), Phaltan, Maharashtra. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)